By Anna Ashbaugh, Associate, Advisory Services

The Global Reporting Initiative’s sustainability reporting Guidelines (G3.1), while widely applied, are often misunderstood. With nearly 200 pages of guidance and detailed technical protocols, it is easy to lose sight of the purpose of reporting, which is to be accountable to stakeholders and drive performance.

1. A GRI “A” level means leadership.

The “A” is part of the GRI Application Level system that indicates the extent to which the Guidelines have been applied in sustainability reporting. A GRI “A” is not a grade or a score. According to GRI, the Application Levels “do not give an opinion on the sustainability performance of the reporting organization, the quality of the report, or on formal compliance with the G3 or G3.1 Guidelines.”

All organizations are expected to assess what is relevant for them to report – a materiality assessment. Once this is complete, a company could receive an “A” without reporting any data and stating that the reason for omission is that data is currently “not available” and will be reported at a specific future date – an acceptable alternative to reporting according to GRI. 

2. A GRI “plus” (+) signifies a rigorous assurance process

There are different methodologies for assuring data, and there are different levels of assurance. All of them are represented with a ‘+’ in GRI’s Application Level system. A company can ask an assurance provider to assure the accuracy of even just one indicator, such as energy use, and still include an assurance statement and receive the “A+” Application Level. There is no distinction based on the extent of the data that has been assured.

3. Reporting on as many indicators as possible is the main goal of GRI reporting

Good reporting begins with conducting a materiality analysis to determine which topics are most important to address and which topics are of little or no concern for the company and its stakeholders. GRI’s Technical Protocols help guide organizations through this process. The GRI indicators are generally applicable for reporting an organization’s sustainability performance, but they do not cover all potential issues. By focusing on disclosing the maximum number of GRI indicators, companies can often lose sight of what’s truly important.    

4. GRI presents a full framework for sustainability communications

The majority of a company’s stakeholders won’t form opinions about a company’s sustainability efforts based on the degree of GRI application. GRI focuses on helping companies be more transparent, but it does not provide guidance on how to communicate a cohesive, relevant, and authentic sustainability story for the organization. A report without a compelling story and an outlook for the future is a missed opportunity. 

5. GRI is the best tool for measuring impact

The GRI Guidelines and respective indicators help an organization describe its economic, environmental and social footprint, but the GRI indicators don’t always provide a way to accurately or comprehensively measure the impact of an organization’s unique programs or initiatives (though there are GRI indicators which help to aggregate and enable reporting on these top level impacts).

Companies’ CR strategies should include a process to determine indicators that allow them to quantify the impact of their proactive environmental and social efforts.

Putting GRI Reporting in Context

The GRI Guidelines are just that: guidelines. They are a starting place, not an ending place. Rather than setting an end goal of reporting with an “A”, the value lies in using reporting as:

  • A tool to manage overall business as well as environmental and social performance;
  • An asset that enhances corporate reputation;
  • A vehicle to build relationships with key stakeholders; and
  • A tool to communicate organizational culture (internally and externally).



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